Revitalize Your Revision Process with One Easy Trick

It can be easy to grow discouraged while revising your story, whether novel-length or shorter. The elation of finishing the first draft wears off, and you're left with multiple rounds of critiques, followed by picking apart & reworking a project into which you've already invested so much of yourself. It can feel endless, or at times even hopeless.

When you're deep in that process, it is also easy to lose sight of the progress being made with each round of revisions. If you find yourself losing perspective, try this trick:
    Use the "Compare Documents" feature in MS Word to see how far you've come from that first (almost certainly messy) draft.

Of course, this assumes that you're saving the various versions of your work in progress—which you absolutely should be doing. (If not on your computer, then in periodic backups. Seriously, when was the last time you backed up your manuscript? Do it now!)

Here's how to find this feature (on a Mac; PC versions of Word may vary but should be similar enough): 
  1. Go to Tools -> Track Changes -> Compare Documents
  2. This will open the menu below:
  3. For the "Original Document," select your completed first draft.
    • If you don't already have it open, click on the little folder or select "browse" from the drop-down menu. 
    • If you do already have it open, you can select it directly from the drop-down.
  4. For the "Revised Document," select your most recent draft.
  5. Make sure to open the extra settings (with all the check boxes) and to select "Show Changes in New Document"!
    • This will leave your original files exactly as they are and open a brand new file highlighting the differences.

Why go through the trouble? Because seeing your progress highlighted in bright colors (depending on your settings) will help you appreciate how much you've done and how far your story has come! Whether you save this new document or simply scroll through to see all those changes, it's sure to help you find the motivation to keep working toward that compelling story readers will love.

Mini Lesson: Subjective vs. Objective Narration

It's been a long time coming, but as promised, here's a mini lesson on the difference between subjective and objective narration!

I first wanted to address this because I keep seeing people call any subjective narration "first-person" narration. In case you missed it, I covered the definitions of first-person and third-person narration in another mini lesson. The bit to remember for today is that "first-person" simply means the use of first-person pronouns: I, we, us, etc.

Subjective narration is when a story is told through the lens of one character's experience at a time. There can be multiple narrators or just one, but each perspective is limited to what the narrating character sees, hears, feels, knows, etc. In fact, another term for subjective narration is limited narration. It places the reader into the body & mind of the narrator, so we experience the story unfolding along with them. This is the more common type of narration seen in fiction nowadays.

Objective narration, on the other hand, is when the story is told by an all-knowing narrator. This can also be called omniscient narration. This narrator can dip into different characters' minds and also share with the reader things the characters may not know at all. Everything we may need to know about the world, the characters, and the plot, this narrator knows. While less common nowadays, it is no less powerful a choice, and both types of narration have their strengths.
    Novels with objective narrators include The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, and of course many more.

Both types of narration can be either first- or third-person. However, it's extremely rare to have a truly objective first-person narrator. Such narrators often turn out to be unreliable, meaning the reader can't necessarily trust what they're saying and may need to draw separate conclusions about conversations and events. An unreliable narrator might simply misconstrue events and other characters' words and actions, or they may intentionally conceal information from the reader, misrepresent events, and even lie outright. They may also be suffering from mental conditions which affect their perception of events.
    Unreliable first-person narrators who present themselves as objective storytellers can be seen in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov and in Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverk├╝hn As Told by a Friend by Thomas Mann.

One last thing to note is that narrative tense—whether the story is told in the past, present, or even (and extremely rarely) future—is independent from whether the narration is in first- or third-person and whether it's subjective or objective. So there are many combinations with which you can experiment in your writing!

Mini Lesson: First-Person vs. Third-Person Narration

Mini lessons have been getting a bit long lately, but luckily this one is short & sweet!

I've been seeing far too many advice posts for writers that incorrectly define first-person and third-person narration. So I'd like to clear things up.

First-person narration is narration that—unsurprisingly—uses first-person pronouns, meaning the narrator refers to themselves as "I." So you'll be seeing words like "my," "we," "our," us," etc. in the narration. It's how, most often, you would speak to a friend about your life experiences:
  • I went to the store.
  • My backpack fell on the ground.

Third-person narration uses, appropriately, third-person pronouns, meaning the narration describes all characters (including the perspective character, if any) as "he," or "she," (or "ze," or other pronoun preferences) or by name. So you won't see words like "I" or "my" outside of direct thought and dialogue. For example:
  • Alex went to the store.
  • Her backpack fell on the ground.

So, where does the confusion come in? Well, I keep seeing people refer to subjective narration as "first-person." These are not the same thing! In fact:
  • Both first- and third-person narration can be subjective (limited to the narrating character's point of view; also sometimes called "close" narration).
  • Both can also be objective! (All-knowing, or unlimited.)
    • The caveat here is that objective first-person narration is extremely rare. It is usually told in hindsight to explain how your narrator could know everything that happened and what other characters thought or felt. Often, the narrator turns out to be unreliable. 
      • Look out for a future post on subjective vs. objective—and unreliable—narration!
    • Some examples:
      • Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverk├╝hn As Told by a Friend by Thomas Mann
      • How I Met Your Mother (TV show)
  • Both can be written in either past or present tense. 
    • Or future, in theory, though I haven't seen that. If you have, please share an example in the comments!

Bonus: It's also possible to have second-person narration, addressing the reader directly using the second-person pronoun "you." This is rare, especially in longer forms like novels, but it does happen and can be quite powerful. Examples:
  • You walk to the store.
  • Your backpack falls to the ground.

So there you have a quick overview of pronoun options for your narration. Remember: the pronouns you choose do not affect whether your narration is subjective or objective, which is a separate choice you have to make for your story.

Still have questions? Ask in the comments!

Mini Lesson: Punctuating Interrupted Dialogue

This post was written & scheduled to publish before the horrible events in Vegas. Words can fail in such moments, but our hearts and thoughts are with all those affected. 

I'll admit, today's mini lesson focuses on a pet peeve of mine: punctuating interrupted dialogue. I've seen so many different (incorrect) versions, and they do get quite inventive, but we definitely need to clear this one up.

As a foundation, I am assuming you all know how to punctuate basic dialogue—rules like using a comma in place of a period with a dialogue tag, not capitalizing the tag if it's after the dialogue, etc. For a simple example: "Hello," she said.

Today I want to focus specifically on what happens when something (or someone) interrupts a character who's speaking mid-sentence. There are three different ways to write this correctly:
  1. Use a speech verb with a modifier. For example: "Look over there," she said, pointing to the corner, "over by the bookshelves."
    • Because you're using a speech verb (said), you punctuate it like any other dialogue tag, with a comma before the closing quotation mark.
    • In this case, the extra action (pointing to the corner) is added on following a comma because the modifier is subordinate to the main verb (still said).
    • Because you're interrupting one sentence ("Look over there, over by the bookshelves."), a comma is also used to lead into the second half of the dialogue, and that second bit of dialogue is not capitalized.
      • Keep in mind, the dialogue in this example could be two separate sentences: "Look over there. Over by the bookshelf." This is a different speech pattern, and if this is how you'd like your character to speak, then there would be a period after "corner," and the second bit of dialogue would be capitalized:
        "Look over there," she said, pointing to the corner. "Over by the bookshelves."
  2. Use an em dash inside the quotation marks to cut off the character mid-dialogue, usually with either
    (A) another character speaking or (B) an external action.
    • A: "Look over there—"
      "By the bookshelves," Jamie added before Sheila could clarify. 
    • B: "Look over there—"
      A stack of boxes clattered to the ground.
    • Including the em dash at the end of the line of dialogue signifies that your character wasn't finished speaking.
      • Sometimes unfinished lines of dialogue end with an ellipsis. This is grammatically correct, but it signifies your character trailing off as if losing their train of thought or drifting off to sleep, not something or someone else interrupting their words.
    • If you want to make a point of the speaking character's action interrupting their own dialogue, you could also use this punctuation, writing:
      "Look over there—" She snapped her mouth shut so she didn't give the secret away.
    • Note that in all of these instances a new sentence starts after the closed quotation mark, so of course the first word needs to be capitalized.
  3. Use em dashes outside the quotation marks to set off a bit of action without a speech verb. For example: "Look over there"—she pointed to the corner—"by the bookshelves."
    • Do not merely use commas, because in such cases there is no speech verb, and therefore it isn't a dialogue tag and can't be punctuated like one.
      • Wrong: "Look over there," she pointed to the corner, "by the bookshelves."
        • Pointed isn't a speech verb, but this punctuation indicates that she is "pointing" her words to the corner. If we were to replace pointed with called, this punctuation would become correct, as in example #1 above.
    • Do not put the em dashes inside the quotation marks if the line of dialogue continues after the interruption. 
      • Wrong: "Look over there—" she pointed to the corner "—by the bookshelves."
    • Also wrong? Putting em dashes half in and half out, or combining em dashes with commas. If you're segmenting a line of dialogue without using a speech verb, make sure to close the quotation marks after the first bit of dialogue, use two em dashes around the interruption, then open the quotation marks again for the second part.
  • Bonus: If we're tuning into someone's dialogue in the middle, you can absolutely open the dialogue with an em dash or an ellipsis, making sure not to capitalize the first word. For example:
        Sheila found Jason leaning against the wall. "—why we'll never go to Starbucks again," he was saying.
          (Or: "...why we'll never go to Starbucks again," he was saying.)
    • This does not work if we're catching a full sentence, in other words if there would have been a period (or question mark, or exclamation point) had we "heard" what came before. In such a case, the narration or tag can clue us in to having missed part of the dialogue:

        "So that's why we'll never go to Starbucks again," Jason finished explaining.

As you can see, there are many ways to punctuate your dialogue. Each option affects the speech pattern of your character as well as the flow of your narration, so make sure your choices are intentional. Words matter, and so does punctuation!

    Have questions? Would you like to suggest a Mini Lesson subject? Share in the comments!

    Authors Helping Houston

    To support relief efforts following Hurricane Harvey, authors in a variety of genres have pledged to donate their royalties from the books on this page. I've been lucky enough to work with several authors among those participating, and I'm sure the books listed include some great reads!

    So if you're looking to fill up your reading list, please consider purchasing some (or all!) of these books before September 17th. You can also show your support for the generosity of these authors by leaving an honest review after reading.

    Click on the photo to learn more!

    Graphic describing Authors Helping Houston fundraising effort